Not So Great

Well, so much for that experiment. I’ve run out of good news. So, back to the usual ration of doom and gloom I serve on days starting with a “T”.

We’ve got less than two weeks left in the MLB season–barring the possibility of a tie-breaking game being needed, the last regular season games will be played on October 4–so let’s check in on how the playoff picture is shaping up, with particular emphasis on the predictions I made at the beginning of the year.

In that post, I laughed at Cubs fans for basing their hopes of a World Series victory on the Back to the Future movies. Winning the Series would, of course, require that they make the playoffs. As of today, they’re at 88-62, sitting in the second Wild Card slot, and holding a 9 1/2 game lead over the Giants and Nationals. So there’s still hope. Tenuous, perhaps, but present. Let us not forget that both World Series teams last year were wild cards.

My predictions for the American League were for Boston, Kansas City, and Seattle to win their divisions, with Toronto and Baltimore taking the Wild Card slots.


Boston is currently 72-77 and cannot win their division. Ditto for the Mariners at 73-77. Both have faint hopes of squeaking into the playoffs via the second Wild Card, but they both have elimination numbers of six*. Note, by the way, that I ignored the numbers to take Seattle over Oakland for the West title. Oakland is the only team in the AL to have guaranteed themselves a losing record this year and the only team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Kansas City, on the other hand, is at 87-62 with an eleven game lead over the Twins. With thirteen games remaining, it would take a historically unprecedented collapse for them to fail to win the division.

* The elimination number is the number of losses by the team in question and wins by the team they’re chasing that will mathematically eliminate them from contention. So in this case, both the Red Sox and Mariners will be eliminated by a combination of six losses and/or Houston wins.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are at 86-64, leading the East by 3 1/2 games. They could still wind up in the Wild Card as I predicted, or even fail to make the playoffs, but they’ve got decent odds of winning the division. The news isn’t as good for Baltimore. They’re barely ahead of Boston and Seattle in the Wild Card race with an elimination number of seven.

So the odds right now say that one of my five predictions is likely to be correct; two if we just go by the predicted teams making the playoffs.

Over in the National League, my numbers aren’t much better. The predictions were for New York, Cincinnati, and Colorado to win their divisions, and St. Louis and Pittsburgh to take the Wild Card slots.

The Mets are leading the East by 6 1/2, so there’s that. However, the Reds (63-86) and Rockies (63-87) have already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

There’s better news for Cardinals and Pirates fans: St. Louis is leading the Central by four games over the Pirates, who currently hold a two game lead over those smug Cubs in the Wild Card.

Nobody else has much of a shot at the Wild Card. Only San Francisco and Washington have any chance at all, and they both have elimination numbers of four.

So here too, only one of my predictions seems likely to materialize. If the Cubs put on a late run and take the division away from St. Louis, then I’d most likely have three of five right.

By the most likely outcomes, I’ve scored a 20% rate with my predictions. That’s not too great, but that Cubs rally would up it to 40%. Sounds better. (Just predicting the playoff teams, I did rather better. Right now the odds say I hit 50%. That’s not bad*.)

* If I’ve done the math correctly, you’ve got one chance in three of being correct for each team you pick at random making the playoffs (30 teams and 10 playoff slots). So the chances of making a correct pick five times are 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3. That’s one chance in 243. Hey, anyone out there more knowledgeable about stats than I am who can tell me how badly I’ve screwed up the calculation by not allowing for the fact that the teams are split into two leagues?

There are, by the way, other ways to slice and dice these numbers. Consider that there’s one chance in five of picking division winners at random. I did that twice at odds of one in twenty-five. Not too shabby.

So what have we learned here? First, picking playoff teams is hard. But I think we knew that already. Second, I don’t really understand statistics. But we knew that too, as witness the fact that I buy lottery tickets. Third, and more to the point, it suggests that margin of victory in the first game of the season is a decent predictor for the playoffs. Who cares if it’s a sample of one?

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